Stanley Fish, author, university professor, "public intellectual," is a prodigious, original, unorthodox thinker. Even when one disagrees with him, his arguments are honorably and thoughtfully propounded as he unleashes his chicken upon your egg.
In a July 23 New York Times Op-ed, Fish takes an intellectual straight razor to warring concepts of academic freedom. Springing from the case of Kevin Barrett, a 9-11 conspiracy theorist who lectures at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Fish labels argument over content, the ideas espoused, as the wrong battlefield of academic freedom.
"Both sides get it wrong," he writes. "The problem is that each assumes that academic freedom is about protecting the content of a professor's speech; one side thinks that no content should be ruled out in advance; while the other would draw the line at propositions (like the denial of the Holocaust or the flatness of the world) considered by almost everyone to be crazy or dangerous.
"But in fact, academic freedom has nothing to do with content....Rather, academic freedom is the freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis....
"Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply...."
In other words, study and teach astrology if you will, "not to profess astrology and recommend it as the basis of decision-making...but to teach the history of its very long career."
Study, learn, teach. Any subject, no matter how offbeat or mundane, is fair game for academic research, scholarly protocols, classroom introduction. No subject should be available for classroom "indoctrination." For that, there is the public square, no less available to academics (excepting Lawrence Summers, late of Harvard) than to the rest of us.
Fish's short brief should be influential. It won't be, because academia is thoroughly invested in content. Ward Churchill, the focus of the most prominent current battle (misconstrued as it is) over "academic freedom," was hired by the University of Colorado because he was provocative, not for his "scholarship." And he's the tip of the iceberg.
Just imagine, though, how refreshing it would be for graduates to actually emerge from universities with rigorous grounding in academic disciplines, thus capable of discerning facts, making rational, informed life judgments, even determining their own "partisan political ideals" without having been indoctrinated other than in the ability to think for themselves.July 28, 2006